British Stories We Shouldn’t Ignore

Taking a spin through the British press, we saw some stories that have been receiving scant attention stateside.

For a variety of reasons, we rarely comment on the foreign press. But that doesn’t mean we don’t read it, and scanning the headlines in some of the big British dailies this week, a couple of stories caught our eye, stories that have been virtually invisible in the American press.

Today for instance — and since the big scoop in the story only broke this morning in the U.K. it’s understandable that the dailies on this side of the Atlantic haven’t run with it yet — there is wall-to-wall coverage of a friendly fire incident in Iraq between American and British forces, and the Brits are pretty upset. The story began back on March 28, 2003, just a couple days into the war, when two American warplanes mistakenly attacked a British military convoy, misidentifying the tanks as Iraqi Army trucks, killing one British soldier and wounding another.

The investigation has dragged on for almost four years, but this morning the British tabloid the Sun ran with a video of the mistaken attack, and reprinted the pilots’ transcript, (which the Brits and Americans had claimed didn’t exist) where one of the American pilots says, “We’re in jail dude,” once he realized the mistake.

The scoop is the video itself, which shows the back and forth between the pilots and their observers on the ground, which had not previously been released.

The other British papers rushed to catch up, with the Telegraph giving the story plenty of attention on its Web site, as did the Guardian.

The story has been unfolding incrementally all week. On Sunday the Observer published a sobering piece on the British government and the military’s mounting frustration with the Pentagon over a series of friendly fire incidents where American troops have killed Brits, but about which the Pentagon refuses to provide any information or explanation.

Over here, things are moving a bit slower. While the Washington Post’s Web site has reported on the Sun story, and CNN has been running with it all day, we haven’t seen much additional coverage on the Web. As of this afternoon, it appears that the New York Times and Los Angeles Times are focused on the “astronaut kidnap plot,” and for the moment are ignoring the friendly fire story completely. Given that the U.S. military’s investigation of the incident did not result in charges against the pilots, we guess that the story will barely make a ripple stateside.

Another U.S.-British, war-related story that has seen uneven coverage on opposite sides of the Atlantic concerns the “forgotten war” of our own era: Afghanistan.

The Times Online reported on Sunday that in the wake of the recent handover of the command of NATO troops to U.S. Army General Dan McNeil, British defense officials have “voiced fears that an imminent push by the United States in Afghanistan will force British soldiers to adopt an overly aggressive approach that will damage relations with ordinary Afghans and play into the hands of the Taliban.” The piece quotes an unnamed British senior officer writing in a British military journal that a recent American offensive “forced a change in the security dynamic in a number of areas across the province and played, to a certain extent, into the hands of the Taliban,” and that “the operation created a dent in the UK taskforce’s reputation with the local population and meant an indifferent start to the mission.”

While the war in Afghanistan has received spotty coverage in the United States — and that’s no knock on the brave and talented reporters working in that country — the British and Canadian press has given the conflict much more time and consideration. Hardly a word has been written in the States about the handover of NATO to an American commander, and even less about the increasing friction between American and British commanders about strategy and tactics.

But in this case at least, it sounds like the “coalition of the willing” might not be so willing after all.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.